Alabama's Hybrid Bass Hotspots
September 28, 2010
These manmade fish are brutes on the end of the line and never know when to quit. If you're up to the challenge, here's where to tangle with them this month. (April 2009)
Hybrid bass are notorious for their hard-fighting ability and April may just be the best month of the whole year to catch them.
Even though hybrids are generally sterile, their genetic programming leads them to swim upstream to spawn this time of year. That means they end up congregating below dams by the hundreds, if not the thousands.
Live shad are the preferred bait, but they also bite artificial lures, primarily in white or chartreuse color. The fishing can be explosive, with some hybrid stripe specimens weighing as much as 12 to 15 pounds and the rare individual pushing 20 pounds.
Nick Nichols, a longtime fisheries biologist with the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, is as knowledgeable as anyone in Alabama about the state's hybrid bass. He spent about 20 years working in the Marion Fish Hatchery where the state's hybrids are produced. Today, he's the assistant chief of fisheries for Alabama in charge of research.
Alabama once stocked as many as 1 million hybrid stripers a year in the state's waterways, but the number is now down to about 300,000 a year. Two things were key in the decision to cut back on the number of hybrids being stocked in the state. First of all, fishing for hybrids never really caught on with any great popularity among Alabama's anglers.
They're something of an incidental catch. Fishermen are tickled if they get into a school of hybrids and catch a bunch, but no one much goes out and specifically targets them.
Secondly, the state has shifted its emphasis to restoring Gulf-strain striped bass to many waterways across the state.
Today, most hybrid stocking takes place on the Coosa River, where terrific fisheries for the species exist below Logan Martin and Neely Henry dams, or on the Tenn-Tom Waterway in western Alabama, where there's good hybrid fishing below Demopolis and Gainesville dams.
There are "incidental" hybrid fisheries on the Tennessee and Chattahoochee rivers, Nichols said. While Alabama is not stocking hybrids in great numbers on either waterway, Georgia stocks quite a bit on the Chattahoochee. The river forms the state line and both Alabama and Georgia anglers benefit from the Peach State's stocking efforts.
In North Alabama, hybrids and stripers stocked in Tennessee are finding their way down the Tennessee River into Alabama's portion of the stream.
Nichols said hybrids are actually known to use the lock system to get from lake to lake on the Tennessee River and some ongoing research is being done on that phenomenon. He said it's much more common than anyone ever thought previously.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE HYBRID
Just what is a hybrid striper and what is the benefit of stocking them rather than a regular striped bass?
Nichols can easily explain that. A hybrid is a cross between a striped bass and a white bass. In most Southeastern states, the cross involves a male striped bass and a female white bass.
Not so in Alabama. Here, the cross is a female striper and a male white bass. The cross results in the so-called "Palmetto bass," named for South Carolina where it originated.
"A lot of states don't have access to a good supply of striped bass brood fish, but we do," Nichols noted.
The problem with stocking regular striped bass is that Southern summers can be very detrimental to the fish. They must have deep waters that serve as "thermal refuges" where they can escape the heat. Some waterways have documented die-offs of big striped bass due to warm water conditions.
The benefit of the hybrid is that it is much more tolerant of warm water. That characteristic makes it possible to have a lineside bass fishery in waterways that otherwise couldn't support them, like the relatively shallow Tenn-Tom Waterway.
Another advantage, Nichols said, is that the fish are sterile. If you stock hybrid bass in a waterway and later determine you don't want them there, all you have to do is wait a few years and they'll be gone.
He added that the state has been a little disappointed that anglers have not given hybrids more of a response.
"If you create a fishery and no one comes to enjoy it, what's the benefit?" he asked.
THE WARRIOR & TENN-TOM
While several lakes on the Coosa River get stockings of both hybrids and Gulf-strain stripers, the Warrior and Tenn-Tom Waterway get hybrids only.
"Those rivers just don't have the thermal refuges and stripers would be under a lot of stress there," Nichols explained.
A spot that seems unlikely -- the Sipsey Fork of the Warrior River -- holds the state record for hybrid stripers. E.H. Hodges of Chelsea caught a 25-pound, 15-ounce hybrid below Lewis Smith Dam on Sept. 13, 1996.
Although the Sipsey Fork holds the record and still has hybrid striper runs in the spring, the tailraces at Gainesville and Demopolis are considered the better places in this region for hybrid fishing.
Hybrids can also be caught below Jones Bluff and Millers Ferry dams
The tailraces of Logan Martin Dam and Neely Henry Dam have to be considered the premier locations in the state to catch hybrid striped bass.
They are also great places to catch white bass and regular stripers. Nichols said you can see a pattern to the stripe fishing here, starting in mid to late March and running through the month of April.
"The white bass start moving in below the dam in mid-March to late March," Nichols described. "It can be earlier if we're having an early spring. The hybrids begin running a week or two later, usually in early April. They may be sterile, but they still exhibit that spawning behavior."
The true striped bass then follow, usually in mid to late April. Each run of fish overlaps the other somewhat, so it's possible to catch all three species on a single trip at times.
Hybrids can also be found in spring-fed creeks running into Logan Martin, such as Choccolocco Creek. The fish can sometimes be found relating to a defined channel or bunc
hed up on humps.
Mitchell and Martin lakes also have good fishing as well. There are good numbers of hybrid stripers throughout the Coosa system, Nichols said, so any tailrace on that river is good this time of year.
The fishing seems to be best when the dams are generating power and the released water is creating current. At times, the outstanding hybrid fishing below the dams on the Coosa runs well into summer. Anglers targeting catfish sometimes catch them on chicken livers.
TO CATCH A HYBRID
Anglers on both the bank and in boats catch hybrid stripers in the spring below the dams.
"Live shad are considered the best baits," Nichols said. "And I guess dead shad are the next best thing."
Sassy Shad-type jigs work well if you chose to fish with artificials. Nichols said he likes to use 1/2-ounce and 3/4-ounce jigs. Most tailrace sections have plenty of riprap, sunken rocks and other debris, so hangups are inevitable.
"You will lose some gear," Nichols pointed out.
He likes chartreuse or white when picking a color for this angling.
Crankbaits and spoons also can sometimes be used to catch the fish.
Capt. Dallas "Buddy" Golden, who now works as a bass guide on Lake Guntersville, grew up fishing for striper and hybrids on Lake Martin and guided for stripers there for years and years.
"You fish for hybrids just like you would fish for stripers," Golden said. "When I guided on Lake Martin, we caught hybrids in the same places doing the same things that we did for stripers."
He caught many of his fish on live shad, but also fished jigging spoons, jerkbaits and bucktails. He almost always fished with white lures unless the water was stained and then he would go with white-and-chartreuse.
"They make a special jerkbait called a Red Fin that is just dynamite for hybrids and stripers," Golden said.
The Cotton Cordell Red Fin line of jerkbaits is marketed by Pradco Lures.
One thing anglers must determine when they arrive at a striper hole is just where in the water column the fish are located. It's a critical factor, even if you're fishing live shad.
"If the fish are near the surface, you don't use any weight with your shad," Golden noted. "You just use the hook and the shad and do what's known as free-lining.
If the fish are deeper, you use a Carolina rig, but replace the usual plastic bait with a live shad. The weight gets the bait down to where the fish are.
While hybrids are known to push 20 pounds, Golden said the majority of the ones you catch below the dams are 4 to 8 pounds.
"They fight real strong," he offered. "They're normally a little wider than a regular striper, so they might fight a little harder."
Golden won't go after the fish with anything less than 20-pound-test line and he doesn't hesitate to go all the way up to 30 pounds. For this angling, the guide uses both baitcasting rigs and spinning tackle.
"I like that open-face spinning rig when I'm throwing a jerkbait or a bucktail," he said.
Golden noted that he has fished for hybrids on West Point Lake and caught them on Bill Lewis Rat-L-Traps there.
"You get real strong runs of fish below these dams in the spring time, with stripers, hybrids and white bass all running at different times," he said. "If everything comes together just right, the good fishing can last for weeks."
Anglers interested in catching the fish need to start looking as early as February and March, because sometimes the big fish in particular turn on early.
"They get a good run up below Guntersville Dam where I live, too," Golden said. "It just seems like those bigger fish come in earlier to me."
WHERE THE HYBRIDS ARE STOCKED
All told, the DWFF has stocked more than 18 million hybrids around Alabama since 1974, according to Nick Nichols.
The DWFF fish-stocking reports for lakes from last year showed 20,160 hybrids were stocked at Demopolis; 14,400 at Gainesville; 6,720 at Holt; 50,000 at Jones Bluff; 39,980 at Jordan; 24,000 at Lay; 46,200 at Logan Martin; 35,520 at Mitchell; 2,200 at Oliver; 18,240 at Warrior; and 34,000 at Wheeler. That's a total of 291,420 hybrids that were released into the state's waters for 2007-08.
The same stocking report from half a decade earlier shows how hybrid stocking has dropped off. In 2004-05, the state planted 566,220 hybrids in the state's waterways. Those fish -- or whatever is left of them -- should now be approaching trophy size.
The lakes that were stocked five years ago were Bankhead with 18,600; Claiborne 6,000; Demopolis 22,800; Gainesville 14,400; Holt 6,400; Jones Bluff 51,200; Jordan 40,920; Lay 24,200; Logan Martin 76,800; Madison County Lake 100; Mitchell Lake 35,520; Oliver 2,200; Warrior 18,300; and West Point 56,480.
Use the stocking information as a good starting point on your quest for hybrids and remember to go upstream to the dam above where the fish were released for the best springtime action.
Hybrids are tough customers, not just for their tackle-busting fighting, but also because of how fast they grow. In many ways, it makes them the ideal sport fish.
State fisheries biologists gather broodfish in March and April, which is the same time that anglers are going after stripers and white bass on Alabama waterways.
They're taken to the Marion Fish Hatchery, where the milt and eggs are harvested from the fish and placed in special brood containers. Once hatched, the fry grow rapidly, with the young fish reaching 1 1/2 inches by the time they are stocked in June. "By their first fall, they'll be 7 or 8 inches long," Nichols said. "By the following spring, they weigh 2 pounds and will be catchable size."
HOW TO TELL IF IT'S A HYBRID
To many Alabama anglers, stripes are stripes, whether they're talking about white bass, stripers or hybrids. But, according to state biologists, hybrid bass can be distinguished from striped bass by the broken lateral stripes along the lower sides of the body. Those stripes are continuous on a striped bass. Hybrids also have a deeper, thicker, shorter body form.
Hybrids can be distinguished from white bass by two tooth patches on their tongues as opposed to only one such patch on the white bass. Older hybrid bass have a much more stocky appearance than a white bass and, of course, get much bigger.
Hybrids are thought to be the most wide ranging and abundant members of the striped bass family in Cotton State waters, and specimens have been collected from the Mobile basin all the way to the Tennessee River.